Written and Photographed by Rebecca Peters-Golden
I’ll just come right out and say it. I wish I were having high tea in some fabulous peri-London estate garden, shaded from the few rays of sun the leaves don’t filter out by a tasteful parasol and wearing a scarf against the beginnings of a late afternoon chill. With a way better accent. There simply comes a moment in every summer when I feel like the responsibility of cooking for myself in my un-air-conditioned kitchen should be lifted from my shoulders and I should be able to sip from hand-painted china and dine on delicacies that possess no nutritional value whatsoever, if only for a day. Now is that moment.
Absent such a garden paradise, I have decided that instead I shall create a high tea for myself, complete with a lovely brew and some delicate cucumber sandwiches. And I need look no further than one of my favorite human beings, Oscar Wilde, for inspiration.
Oscar Wilde is, as you likely know, a master of showing how the things we dismiss because they are superficial and hedonistic are actually essential to who we are. Cucumber sandwiches have long been a staple of the leisure class’ tea due to the fact that they were not filling, like a meal a laborer would need, but merely delicately delicious.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon orders cucumber sandwiches especially for Aunt Augusta’s appearance at tea, but while waiting for her to arrive, eats them all and doesn’t notice. And, although the frivolous delicacy was to be there by her request, Aunt Augusta doesn’t even care:
Jack: Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?
Algernon: Oh! merely Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen. . . . Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta. (Takes one and eats it.)
Jack: Well, you have been eating them all the time.
Algernon: That is quite a different matter. She is my aunt. . . .
Lady Bracknell: I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. And now I’ll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.
Algernon: Certainly, Aunt Augusta. (Goes over to tea-table.) . . . (picking up empty plate in horror). Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.
Lady Bracknell: It really makes no matter, Algernon. I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.
Traditional British cucumber sandwiches are made with butter on the bread and lemon on the cucumber, but I prefer what is apparently the more Americanized version, which uses cream cheese in place of butter and gets nowhere near a lemon. In an amusing turn, given my fantasies of recreating an afternoon tea marked by delicacy and frivolity, I could only find the super-thinly-sliced bread that one uses to make cucumber sandwiches in whole wheat, despite going to four supermarkets in Philadelphia.
So, though I was totally committed to eating a fairly nutrition-free tea, as it turns out, my cucumber sandwiches will be not only an indulgent delicacy, but also rather more sustaining than I was expecting. Wheat bread or white, as cucumber sandwiches are one of the more delightful pleasures in the world, I just ate about twenty of them. But, as Oscar Wilde clarifies, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Oscar Wilde’s Tempting and Irresistible Cucumber Sandwiches
Total time:20 minutes or so
Makes between 25 and 45 sandwiches, depending on how you slice them
- 4-5 large cloves of garlic, depending on how garlicky you like things
- 1 11.5-oz. tub whipped Philadelphia cream cheese
- a small handful of chives, about a quarter of an ounce
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 large seedless cucumber
- 1 loaf Pepperidge Farm Very Thin bread (I liked the whole wheat, but I recommend white)
Mince garlic finely, smashing with the side of your knife for maximum pulpiness. (Note: since the garlic will remain raw, remove the germ, which leaves a bitter taste. Not sure if your garlic has sprouted? Cut the clove in half, lengthwise, to check. If you see a pale green sprout in the middle, pull it out.)
Mix the cream cheese and garlic in a bowl. Finely cut chives (I find this easier using scissors than a knife) into the bowl. Mix thoroughly, adding pepper to taste.
Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible—preferably about a millimeter thick (if you’re a mandoline enthusiast, this is a good time to pull yours out). If your cucumbers are too thick, your slices of bread will skid off each other when you go to slice your sandwich.
Assemble your sandwiches by spreading cream cheese thinly across each slice of bread and evenly covering half the cream cheese-covered slices with rounds of the translucently thin cucumber.
Sprinkle a tiny amount of salt on the cucumbers, if you like (I do!), and top with the another piece of bread. Cut the crusts off to leave yourself with a perfect square of sandwich. You can decide how to divide it: into quarters, rectangles, two triangles?—just ask yourself, What Would Wilde Do?
You can, of course, add other things to cucumber sandwiches if you so desire. As something of a purist, the only thing I ever add is watercress, but you could conceivably add arugula, thinly sliced radish, very thinly sliced ham, or any other favorite garnish.